Rural New Jersey Districts Head Back to Court

Last Updated: October 27, 2011

This article appeared in the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Sixteen rural school districts in the Garden State are seeking a court order, similar to one secured by urban districts last year, requiring recent school be restored. The sixteen rural districts, known as Bacon districts, so named for the lead plaintiff in the case, are primarily in the southern portion of the state.

Bacon districts are distinct from the Abbott lawsuit plaintiffs, which are the group of urban districts that have waged a long and successful battle in New Jersey courts for special needs funding to adequately educate their students, most of whom are low-income and members of minority groups. The Abbott districts brought their last legal action this spring after Governor Chris Christie vetoed the 2010 state budget that would have provided full education funding under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

The Bacon districts have been battling since 1997 for supports and funding similar to those of the Abbott districts. According to Frederick Jacob, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Bacon districts were too small to be eligible to participate in Abbott lawsuit when it was filed in the early ‘80s.

In 2006, the Bacon districts secured a ruling that they were also ‘special needs’ districts and as a result of their poverty levels, faced circumstances as challenging as the Abbott districts and were “no less deserving.” However, a court-ordered needs assessment was delayed 42 months until 2009. In the meantime, a new school funding formula, the SFRA, designed to direct additional funding to New Jersey districts based on poverty levels, had been enacted.

Ultimately, the needs assessment conducted by the Commissioner of Education found that the SFRA would take care of constitutional deprivations, and that additional funding was not indicated because the plaintiffs were not in need due to one of the following: 1) the district should have been doing more with current funding; 2) the district should be consolidated; or 3) the districts were doing well with current funding and would only benefit from SFRA changes.

The assessment ignored the court’s order to consider the unique set of circumstances that distingished rural districts from Abbott districts. It also acknowledged that the SFRA would not support the delivery of educational services in the smallest of the Bacon districts.

The current suit seeks an emergency order for full funding of the SFRA. The Abbott districts argued that restoration should be made for all districts. But the Supreme Court declined to extend the ruling and only ordered restoration of the $447 million that had been cut from Abbott district's SFRA allocations, which forced this separate action. A hearing is expected before the end of the year. The SFRA has been strongly criticized by Governor Christie and his Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf.

Read more:

National coverage about the case:
Local coverage here:
Editorial refuting Governor Christie’s assertions about the current funding formula:
Read the Bacon pleadings here:

Read more from the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.